Bombastic Mr. Fox

Glad to see I wasn’t the only one who thought Politico’s Jack Shafer was a bit touchy in his response to conservative economist Bruce Bartlett’s terrific study regarding Fox’s pernicious effect on the Republican Party and American political culture. Blogger P. M. Carpenter notes that Shafer doesn’t seem to recognize this little thing called nuance:

Does Bartlett argue that “Fox alone pushed the GOP in the direction of radicalism”? Of course not. Yet Shafer suggests that Bartlett suggests such a thing, which constitutes both Shafer’s major assault on Bartlett and, if cornered on it, his escape hatch. Shafer enjoys demolishing an argument that Bartlett never made, while Shafer can only always deny that he explicitly fingers Bartlett for having made it. Pretty neat.

Indeed, in support of Shafer’s counterargument against Bartlett’s phantom argument, the latter himself writes that “In the George W. Bush years … [Fox] began objectively tilting well to the right of center…. Whether driven by politics and ideology or simply by ratings, the shift proved highly successful” (italics mine). Here, Bartlett is vividly open to the proposition that Fox reacted to the GOP’s further-rightward shift, rather than the other way around.

Elsewhere, Bartlett professes that Fox “functions basically as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.” As I read that line, Bartlett is no more saying that Fox has shanghaied the GOP’s ideology than Ian Kershaw has ever said that Goebbels dictated Nazism’s tenets to the Führer (and no I’m not comparing the two parties).

I’ve often argued that the rise of right-wing talk radio in the late-1980s and early-1990s may have done far more damage to American political culture than Fox, only because the success of wingnut talk led directly to the emergence of Fox. In his study, Bartlett observes:

There are many reasons why conservative talk radio worked so well. One is that conservatives finally had a news source that fed their philosophy. Another is that conservatives viewed themselves as outsiders and were attracted not only to the philosophy of conservative talk radio, but its tone and articulation of outrage toward liberals that many listeners themselves had long felt.

In his early years, much of [Rush] Limbaugh’s program, which ran 3 hours a day, consisted of news that conservatives were unable to read in their local paper or hear on television. Conservatives in Congress, at think tanks and other activists saw there was now an outlet for their legislation and studies and eagerly provided them to Limbaugh, who gave them priceless publicity to a highly receptive audience.

As time went by, Limbaugh had many imitators, but no real competitors. For all his faults, he has a great voice and a genuine knack for radio broadcasting; his venture into television never worked. Limbaugh is also entertaining, a fact that even his critics acknowledge. Eventually, many local radio stations decided it was cheaper to buy Limbaugh’s syndicated show rather than pay a local talker. His broadcast reach broadened and his power grew.

Among Limbaugh’s friends and admirers was Roger Ailes, a Republican political consultant and producer who had long dreamed of a conservative television network. In 1970, he worked with the Nixon White House to bring such a network into being. The idea didn’t go anywhere, but Ailes continued to work on it, convincing beer baron Joseph Coors to bankroll a conservative news service called TVN in the mid-1970s. That effort failed as well, but Ailes learned a lot about how to make a conservative network succeed. Finally, in the mid-1990s, he convinced Australian newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch to let him build the news network Ailes had always dreamed of.

Interestingly enough, even Shafer, in his attack on Bartlett, is forced to acknowledge that Fox primarily appeals to the most extreme edge of the US population:

The Republican Party had been fielding “Foxy” presidential candidates for decades before the network’s 1996 launch, such as Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 (Ailes, by the way, was his media consultant), which suggests that the network isn’t leading the right-wing parade but has only positioned itself at the front of the procession. Another Foxy candidate on the 1968 general election ballot was George Wallace, who collected 13.5 percent of the presidential vote as a third-party candidate. Wallace traversed the sort of outre political frontiers that have become Fox territory.

By acknowledging that Fox is embracing the same cultural ethos that Wallace embraced, Shafer has, in essence, made Bartlett’s point for him. Fox has indeed continued the dark project wingnut radio started a quarter-century ago—the project of mainstreaming and sanitizing the image of the radical right. As noted earlier, there are signs that the wingnut radio empire is finally collapsing in the United States. When will the Fox empire collapse?

UPDATE: More from Bartlett and Crooks & Liars.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.